Weekly Pulse: Why the Stem Cell Reversal Is Not a Total Victory


This week, President Obama made headlines by reversing George W.
Bush’s executive order barring researchers who receive federal funds
from researching all but a handful of stem cell lines created before
2001.

"Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it is also
about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama wrote. "It is about
letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from
manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when
it’s inconvenient especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about
ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve
a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on
facts, not ideology."

In The Nation, John Nichols applauds Obama’s restoration of science to its proper place in policy-making.  And Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly
points out that, right on cue, the conservative Family Research Council
has started disingenuously claiming that Obama’s reversal opens the
door for human cloning.

However, as Emily Douglas of RH Reality Check
explains, the full implications of the reversal are more complicated
than you might suppose: Obama lifted Bush-era restrictions on federal
funding for embryonic stem cell (ESC) researchers. However, researchers
are still barred from using federal funds to create or modify human
embryos, due to a legislative provision known as the Dickey-Wicker
amendment, enacted by Congress in 1996.

In 2001, Bush extended the funding ban to apply to human embryonic
stem cells, which are are not themselves embryos. These stem cells are
the descendants of cells that were harvested from embryos. Under the
Bush rules, all but 21 lines of stem cells created before 2001 were
off-limits to researchers receiving federal funds. The ban meant that
if a lab stepped outside the stem cell rules, it would render itself
ineligible for federal biomedical research money for any
research it did, not just stem cell-related program activities. Being
disqualified for federal grant money is effectively a death sentence
for university labs.

Thanks to the Bush’s order, the advancement of ESC science has been
sharply limited by the fact that only a handful of cell lines could be
studied. Frequently, the first step in a new research program is to
custom engineer a new line of cells to test the key hypothesis.

Now that Obama has reversed Bush’s executive order, scientists will be allowed to study stem cells from any lineage,
including newly created lines, without jeopardizing their federal
funding. But where will these new lines of stem cells come from? Unless
Congress repeals Dickey-Wicker, labs that accept government funding
will still be barred from making their own new stem cell lines because
human embryonic stem cells are made from embryos.

The president does not have the authority
to singlehandedly overturn Dickey-Wicker, only Congress can do that.
However, Obama’s move may have emboldened pro-science Democrats to
write Dickey-Wicker out of the next HHS appropriations bill.

In other healthcare news, Ezra Klein at the American Prospect
notes with some amusement that increasing numbers of Republicans are
embracing "universal coverage" as a buzzword. To Republicans, it means
the goal of private insurance for everyone vs. the Obama
administration’s vision of a public insurance option coexisting with
private insurance. Klein reports that the top Senate Republicans with
jurisdiction over health reform sent a letter to President Obama this
week warning him not to try to sneak healthcare reform through the
budget reconciliation process and warning him against a public
insurance alternative. As we’ve discussed in previous editions of the Weekly Pulse,
Republicans and their allies in the insurance industry like the idea of
providing health insurance for everyone, even mandatory insurance for
everyone, just as long as the insurance industry is empowered to sell
it all.

In a similar vein, economist Dean Baker asks in AlterNet whether the government is more committed to protecting healthcare or health insurance industry profits.

This week, Ezra Klein also scored an exclusive interview with Andy
Stern, the president of the Service Employees’ International Union
(SEIU). Check the Prospect to find out what the head of America’s largest union thinks about healthcare reform.

As your healthcare blogger, I’m very pleased to announce the
presence of two outstanding progressive sex advice columnists, Prof.
Foxy of feministing.com and Heather Corinna of RH Reality Check. New feministing contributor "Professor Foxy" debuted her first column,
which could have been titled "The Lord helps those who help
themselves," but was actually called, "Working things out in Florida."
Therein, Prof. Foxy counselled a newly married woman who dutifully
practiced abstinence until marriage, only to find that married sex
wasn’t as magically blissful as the abstinence-only crowd had led her
to believe. Foxy had some practical tips to help the couple shed their
inhibitions and build a mutually satisfying physical relationship. This week,
Dr. Foxy advises a feminist who is trying to cope with the sudden
revelation that her boyfriend of five years enjoys dressing in women’s
clothing.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.